On Oct. 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that designated the first seven days of May as “Asian Pacific American Heritage Week,” to acknowledge America’s first Japanese immigrants and the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroads.
The proclamation came a year after U.S. Representatives Frank Horton of New York and Norman Y. Mineta of California, along with Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, introduced separate joint resolutions that failed to pass.
In 1992, under President George H.W. Bush’s administration, the U.S. Congress finally passed a law that extended the weeklong celebration to a month-long one. In truth, the move was overdue.
As the Japanese American Citizens League notes, the arrival of the first Asians in central North America, in fact, predates the founding of the U.S. In the late 18th century, the first Asian settlers were Filipino migrants — who arrived at what is now New Orleans and Acapulco, Mexico to escape Spanish colonial rule. The Chinese later followed in huge waves during the mid-19th century, in search of gold and other fortunes in California.
Since then, Asian Americans have endured both xenophobia and racism — from the mass lynching of Chinese people in 1871 to the excessive portrayal of South Asians as terrorists — without being duly appreciated for the contributions they have made. With the exception of a few lines dedicated to the 20,000 Chinese workers who constructed the transcontinental railroads, Asian Americans have largely been erased from the history books used in elementary and secondary education, as Pacific Standard’s Ellen Lee points out.
In an effort to raise awareness, we’ve compiled a list of 10 underappreciated contributions that Asians and Asian Americans have made in the U.S. over the last 200 years.
1. Birthright citizenship
In 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children born in America to foreigners were U.S. citizens. The decision came after a yearlong battle between Wong Kim Ark — who was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants — and the U.S. Justice Department.
At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been passed in 1885 and denied citizenship to all Chinese laborers, was still in place. That meant Wong’s parents, who were considered subjects of the Emperor of China, could not be naturalized.
In its argument before the high court, the Justice Department claimed that Wong himself was also not under the lawful jurisdiction of California because he was “by reason of his race, language, color and dress, a Chinese person, and now is, and for some time last past has been, a laborer by occupation.” By that very description, Wong was supposedly not allowed to return to the U.S. from China following a short trip, even though he had been born on American soil.
In response, Wong filed a writ of habeas corpus, and the Supreme Court ultimately sided him. In a 6-2 majority ruling, Justice Horace Gray, writing on behalf of the court, pointed out that the Citizenship Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution automatically made Wong a citizen. Today, activists have cited the landmark decision in their criticism of Trump’s effort to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants.
2. Postwar, New Formalism and modern architecture
Some of the nation’s most iconic buildings — from the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum — were designed by Chinese American I.M. Pei, who was widely considered to be one of the greatest modern architects alongside Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry.
Pei, who famously designed the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris but initially faced backlash for being selected over French firms, left behind a legacy that “combined high design and corporate success with international impact,” according to architecture critic Carter Wiseman. Some of the architect’s other notable buildings include the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Mesa Laboratory in Colorado and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in New York.
Pei, however, wasn’t the only Asian American architect to leave his mark. Lesser-known Chinese American architects like Eugene Choy, Gilbert Leong, Gin Wong and Helen Liu Fong were instrumental in shaping the cityscape of Los Angeles in the postwar era. In New York, Japanese American Minoru Yamasaki, one of the masters of an architectural style called New Formalism, was best known for designing the original World Trade Center.
3. Advancements in cancer detection
Since immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975, Dr. Tuan Vo-Dinh, a biomedical engineering professor at the Duke University Pratt School of Engineering, has built himself an impressive résumé. In addition to authoring more than 200 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals and receiving more than 20 awards, honors and distinctions, Dr. Vo-Dinh also holds more than 20 U.S. patents, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
One of those patents is the development of new gene probes that can detect cancer earlier than usual. Dr. Vo-Dinh’s other patents include a new method of treating metastatic bladder and breast cancer and another that targets cell proliferation disorders.
4. Web portals, email and video-sharing
Chances are you wouldn’t be able to search for the hottest item or check your email if it weren’t for several Asian American pioneers. In 1994, Taiwanese American Jerry Yang co-founded the web portal Yahoo! with David Filo, after ditching a doctoral program at Stanford University.
Originally called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” the portal was renamed Yahoo!, an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” Incorporated in 1995 and later sold to Verizon Communications in 2016, the web portal has expanded its services to include a search engine, e-mail and news. Yahoo Mail, alone, now has more 200 million users.
Yang wasn’t the only Asian American to have a successful breakthrough in the tech industry. In 1996, Indian American businessman Sabeer Bhatia co-founded Windows Live Hotmail, a webmail service. Several years later, Microsoft acquired it for nearly $400 million and turned it to what is now Microsoft Outlook.
In 2005, Taiwanese American Steven Chen, along with Bangladeshi-German American Jawed Karim and Pennsylvania native Chad Hurley, founded the widely popular video-sharing platform YouTube. Today, the Google-owned service has 2 billion users worldwide.
5. Rights for sexual assault survivors
In 2013, Amanda Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, was raped while studying at Harvard University. While trying to access information on her rights as a sexual assault survivor, the then-college student ran into tremendous roadblocks. At the time, Nguyen still had to pay a significant amount of money every six months to make sure her rape kit wasn’t destroyed, even though rape kits in Massachusetts were supposed to be kept for 15 years, according to Money magazine.
That challenge led Nguyen to found Rise, a nonprofit organization that supports fellow sexual assault survivors, and write the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act. The bill, which passed in 2016, gives survivors access to a forensic medical examination at no cost and allows them to preserve their rape kits without having to regularly request an extension. For her work, Nguyen was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
6. Mixed martial arts
The popularity of mixed martial arts in the U.S. has grown largely due to MMA promotion companies Bellator and UFC. But many widely credit the birth of the contact combat sport to none other than Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong American actor, mixed martial artist and philosopher who, in 1965, developed Jeet Kune Do — a form of martial arts that combined kung fu, fencing, boxing and his own techniques.
“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it,” Lee once said.
Although Lee never participated in professional fights, he trained several celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck Norris. He was also well-known for his physical prowess, from performing two-finger push-ups to executing his legendary one-inch punch. As an actor, he was best known for his roles in “Enter the Dragon,” “Fist of Fury,” “Return of the Dragon,” “Game of Death” and “The Green Hornet.”
Some of the most celebrated designers who helped shape New York’s fashion industry in the 1980s and 1990s are Asian American: Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Vera Wang and Kimora Lee Simmons. Wang, for example, established herself at the forefront of bridal wear with her modern but elegant designs, while Simmons made a statement in streetwear with her apparel brand Baby Phat.
Today, the number of prominent Asian American fashion designers has grown to include the likes of Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, Derek Lam, Bibhu Mohapatra, Dao-Yi Chow, Alexander Wang, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. As the New York Times interestingly notes, their presence in (and dominance of) the industry is most likely due to the fact that “fashion values the concept of presentation.” In other words, many Asian Americans may see design as “a way to connect to the cultural values of craftsmanship and use of luxury materials so historically prevalent in East and South Asian countries.”
8. Fair labor practices for farmers
On September 6, 1965, Filipino American grape workers organized a nonviolent strike (alongside Cesar Chavez and his Latino farmworkers union, the National Farm Workers Association) against table and wine grape growers in Delano, Calif. It represented the first time a boycott was used in a major labor dispute. It also resulted in the merger of Cesar’s union and the Filipino workers’ Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which together became known as the United Farm Workers.
Over the course of five years, members of the union relayed their message to fellow poor farmworkers and middle-class families that lived in the cities. In 1970, the table grape growers finally caved in to the union’s demands, promising the workers better pay, benefits and protections. To date, the United Farm Workers has more than 10,000 members, making it the country’s largest farmworker union.
9. Evolution of “American” cuisine
Over the last several decades, Asian food has essentially become the lifeblood of “American” cuisine. As the New York Times Style Magazine points out, the country’s infatuation with Asian food dates back to the late 19th century, when Cantonese restaurants were a hit in New York. At the time, the food was cheap and quickly prepared, making it especially attractive to non-Chinese customers.
Over the years, Chinese chefs capitalized on the popularity of their food by tailoring it for the Western palette. Today, two of the largest restaurant chains in the U.S. serve “American-Chinese” food: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Panda Express.
Other versions of contemporary Asian American cuisine have seen their fair share of success. In 2004, Korean American chef David Chang, for instance, opened New York City ramen shop Momofuku Noodle Bar, which one New York Times critic glowingly called “a plywood-walled diamond in the rough.” Four years later, fellow Korean American Roy Choi founded Kogi, a Korean barbecue taco truck company in California that has since turned into a food empire.
10. The ice cream cone
Although the invention of the ice cream cone is credited to Italian immigrant Italo Marchiony, Syrian concessionaire Ernest A. Hamwi was perhaps the first to popularize it. While working at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Hamwi noticed an ice cream vendor who ran out of dishes to serve the dessert. The Syrian, who was selling a waffle-like confection called zalabia, decided to help the vendor out by rolling his waffles to use as cones.
The waffle cone immediately became a huge hit in Missouri, where multiple entrepreneurs started their own ice cream cone businesses. In 1910, Hamwi himself founded the Missouri Cone Company, which was later renamed the Western Cone Company.
If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read about why being Asian American during this time has been a blessing for one writer.
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